On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!
Feasting on Seeds
Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.
That made some of the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.
And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.
They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.
In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.
Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”
A male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobatespubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside. The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Later I saw a female – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?
In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.
So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting. Nice how nature works like that…
Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!
Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
See-sawing on the “dragonfly” at Gallagher
Playing on the “Stand ‘n’ Spin”
Two girls playing on the hollow “log.”
The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…
Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business
The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.
Birds in the Distance as Children Play
Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.
From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.
But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty, a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.
While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.
Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.
Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.
Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife
Autumn, of course, is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.
Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze. I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries, since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem. Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean. Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.
Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.
The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
Cat-tails are seeding in the marsh on the park’s west side.
A Blue Jay probing for cat-tail seeds.
The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind. Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.
More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass
Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel). I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.
A large puffball appeared along the treeline for the second year in a row.
Turkey-tail mushrooms on a stump at Gallagher.
As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.
Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost
Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.
Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.
Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female
On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.
What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.
But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.
She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.
Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.
At last it seemed she had figured it out. She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.
Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched. And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.
I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.
Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning. I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play
I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world. So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears. It’s great.
What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.
Most of the action at Lost Lake Nature Park in the last few weeks has centered around which pair of Canada Geese control which section of the lake. These normally mild-mannered birds can act like a flock of drama queens when establishing territory and nesting. When I arrived for the first time two weeks ago, the weather was still cold, but some geese tempers were simmering!
I’d just read The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich and supplemented my limited Canada Goose knowledge with Donald Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 1 – so I was curious to see if I could read Canada Goose body language for the first time. Well, it was quite an exciting set of lessons from the geese themselves!
Then I went on to explore the more mellow residents of Lost Lake Nature Park and also fell in love with some wildflowers and a momentarily glamorous insect.
Drama at the Lake!
When I stepped out of my car during my first visit, a male Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and his mate saw me and moved away from the floating dock. The female swam calmly to the west end of the lake while the male patrolled the center.
He turned his head toward me as I reached the dock and kept me in sight all the time. It was a cold day with a strong north wind, unusual for late April. As I walked along the shore toward the east, I heard the male goose honking wildly and turned to see him making a bee-line straight toward me across the pond! When he reached the dock, he took to the air and flew at me, honking wildly, his wings snapping just above my head. Needless to say, I did not raise my camera for a photo! He dropped heavily into the water behind me and gave what the Stokes guide called “the head flip,” stretching his neck high, shaking his head from side to side and giving what Stokes calls “quiet grunts” indicating that the goose is apprehensive or disturbed.
I was puzzled as to what I’d done to receive what was so clearly a threat. So after a few minutes, I moved back to the dock and finally noticed what should have been obvious before. A goose nest rested among the stalks on the island in the lake, lined with feathers from the female’s chest (a “brood patch”) and perhaps some cat-tail fluff. Silly me, I didn’t realize that the whole south side of the pond was this pair’s territory and they had started a family there!
On the far side of the pond, a second pair of geese were already nesting. Periodically the first male would venture somewhat toward the second pair and the male of that pair would stand with his neck very straight and his body tilted slightly forward. If I understand the Stokes Guide correctly, he was making an “I’m aware of you” signal to the other male, indicating that he sensed a possible confrontation. The first male circled away each time.
Later in that visit, the female goose of the first pair rejoined her mate near the nest. As she approached, they both began what Stokes calls a “greeting ceremony.” She would call softly “hink, hink” as she swam and he would respond almost simultaneously with his loud “A-honk!” When she reached him, she put her bill near his, almost tucking her head beneath his lower bill.
Then to my amusement, they both turned in my direction and seemed to be scolding me loudly for having dared to get that close to their beautiful nest! Look at the male’s eye turned right toward me and the female facing me directly! It was just a reminder….
On my next visit to the dock, it was the female who gave me the warning – a stern look as she sat on her nest. That neck position with a straight, lowered head aimed right at me is a threat pose. She remembered this possible trespasser with the camera!
On my third visit, she still kept an eye on me, but seemed more relaxed at my presence, just turning her head to let me know that I was seen. That extended wing may be creating a warm blanket for her eggs, if any, as well as for her.
A week later, I saw what I thought might be my first pair quietly feeding near the nest. Female geese leave the nest for up to an hour during incubation and these two were very close to the nest. It was a lovely warm day and the eggs, if there were any, were probably quite warm under the loose feathers and cat-tail down. I also spotted a third nest at the west end of the lake with one goose standing over it and the female of the second pair on the north side was still sitting on her nest.
But the Canada Goose treat of the day was that, on my way home, I stopped to see two adult geese down the road at a residential pond, standing guard over seven little goslings calmly munching on the fresh green grass.
Other Wildlife Around the Lake Seemed More Relaxed
On that third visit, I also got treated to a pair of very calm Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus)floating around the bend in the island not far from the female goose. I’ve always seen photos of male Hooded Mergansers with their hoods raised dramatically, as in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer, Liam O’Brien.
The male at Lost Lake, however, seemed calm and collected. Through the veil of dry stalks, I was able to catch a quick shot of him. His relaxed crest lay in a slight droop at the back of his neck. The patterns of color on his body and head are so lovely and his bright, golden eye shone like a small gem in his velvety black head!
On the coldest days, the Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) on the far edge of the lake tucked their bills into their back feathers. I thought perhaps they were keeping a low profile against the icy north wind that drove quick, short waves across the pond. In this relaxed posture, they simply drifted with the wind.
A gathering of Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) sun-bathed on the log where I’d first seen the Mergansers. This large one looked particularly content, despite its perpetual grimace.
Nearby, I think I kept hearing the snoring call of the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). It’s as low as the Wood Frog’s, but less continuous and truly, very much like a snore! My recording was much too distant because the Leopard Frogs quieted every time I approached! But you can listen to one at this Macaulay Library link .
I didn’t know until this year that Leopard Frogs come out of hibernation from muddy lake bottoms in very early spring. I usually see them later in the spring or summer when they move into grassy areas. Here’s a picture of one a few summers back in just such an area at Bear Creek Nature Park. Snazzy spots, eh?
Birds and Blossoms in the Wooded Areas
Lost Lake is surrounded by the high, dry hills cloaked by an Oak-Pine Barren. Birds flit in and out of the trees that surround the lake and the woods beyond. The rhythmic, insistent call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) sounded from the very top of a snag near the lake one sunny afternoon.
In the photo that accompanies my recording below, you can see why he was once called the Yellow-shafted Flicker.
Nearby, in the grassy area just west of the caretakers’ house, a female Flicker was paying close attention! Male flickers have a black “mustache” on either side of their bill; females don’t.
Flickers are actually woodpeckers, though they spend a lot of time on the ground probing for their favorite food, ants. In fact, woodpeckers of several kinds busied themselves foraging on snags all over Lost Lake.That’s one of the reasons bird lovers leave dead trees standing in their woods when they can. They provide places to eat and nest for woodpeckers. Here a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drills with great concentration on a dead limb, probably searching for beetle larvae.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)hitched quickly from branch to branch, probably looking for a similar meal, though he may also have been establishing a territory since he periodically let forth with his kwirrrr call.
In the White Pines (Pinus strobus) near the caretakers’ house, the cheery, tweeting call of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) can be heard almost any day! I imagine they frequent the family’s thistle feeder all day long!
Occasionally, I’d see an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) in the area, sometimes on a low limb or sitting on the upturned boat near the shore. It’s always darting down near the water’s edge, probably seeking out insects, since it’s a flycatcher.
On my last warm day visit, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) had flown in on a south wind the night before. It took off from a branch as I stepped out of my car, but then landed near the water, just as the Phoebe had. Perhaps you can just see the spot of greenery in its beak in the righthand photo? Nesting material, methinks! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The Eastern Kingbird on takeoff!
The Kingbird resting near the pond with a bit of nesting material in its beak.
Resilient Spring Flowers Flourish After a Prescribed Burn
The native plants of Lost Lake are a hardy bunch when it comes to fire! Shortly before a Lost Lake prescribed burn took place on April 27, I spotted two clusters of a classic spring flower, the native Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana). Some were along the trail to the Oak-Pine Barrens and the ones below were just at the edge of the grassy area west of the caretakers’ house.
The fire crew was alerted to the presence of these little beauties and did their best to avoid them, leaving the ones in the photo above completely untouched, and singeing the ones along the trail, but leaving some leaves and blossoms. The surprise was that when I came back a week after the fire, the hepatica which was untouched by fire had disappeared – perhaps finished off by warming temperatures or by a grazing deer. But the singed ones along the trail had made a comeback! These fire-adapted plants were producing new leaves and blossoms already on the blackened forest floor! The nutrients from the last year’s dry stalks had been released back into the soil by the fire and the blackened soil was nicely warmed again – so up they came for a second chance in the sun!
Hepatica flowers bloom again after the prescribed burn.
A hardy little hepatica rises from the blackened soil.
Likewise, down near the burned shore of the lake, under the trees, a huge patch of another native plant, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) emerged from the darkened soil. Their umbrella-like leaves were just beginning to open in the dappled light.
And of course the fire couldn’t reach the leaves of the Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) rising from beneath the water near the edge of the lake. I never knew just how the lily pad took shape. Evidently they come up vertically like a wide blade of green and then eventually lay back on the water surface, as the various stages in the photo below suggest. I’m looking forward to the summer blossoms that bloom in the morning.
And One Very Cool Insect with Stars at Its Feet
A tiny Water-Strider (fam. Gerridae) rowed across the surface of a wetland at the foot of the slope in the Oak-Pine Barrens. This little creature literally walks on water! In the shadows, it was easier to see its body and legs covered in thousands of tiny hairs which keep its body dry and light enough to perch above the water as it forages. Its long, flexible, strong legs distribute its body weight evenly so it can move easily across the surface of the water – hence its irreverent other name, the Jesus bug! It steers using those long back legs and pierces its prey with the claws on the middle of its front leg!
But suddenly, when this amazing little creature moved into the sunlight, a small reflection of the sun shone like a star where each leg met the waterline. I was delighted and immediately decided that the Water Strider could be the “star-studded finale” on the blog this week!
Seeing this tiny rower motor about the surface of a wetland, listening to the snap of a goose’s wings right over my head, or coming upon little lavender flower faces peering up at me from the grass – those moments are epiphanies for me. They illuminate the reality that despite the presence of nature’s most invasive species, i.e. we humans! – nature endlessly tries to adapt and survive, even if it means walking on the water, challenging a trespasser or springing out of burned earth. Surely such skills, daring, resilience and sheer beauty deserve our loyalty, protection and thoughtful stewardship.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; maccaulaylibrary.org; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; A Guide to Bird Behavior Volume 1 by Donald W. Stokes,and other sources as cited in the text.
The solstice has passed; the days and nights get equal time. But when I’m shivering, my fingers and ears go numb in a stiff wind, I struggle to hold on to the idea that we’re heading into spring. Until, that is, I head into the parks.
In mid-March, water birds began splashing down in Cranberry Lake, finding any narrow stretch of open water within the ice sheet. They floated and fed – until one glorious morning, the whole lake turned liquid and bright blue! Migrating flocks honked, chattered and wheeled overhead. Some stopped to rest and feed before heading further north; others explored nesting sites. Our year ’round residents tuned up their spring songs. Territories must be established! Potential mates must be impressed! Best of all, the tiny frogs thawed after their frozen winter state – and now they are singing! Can genuine spring, with its fulsome birdsong and burgeoning buds be far behind? I think not!
Water Birds Arrive Early, Despite the Ice – and the Muskrats Emerge, too!
It always impresses me that some of the first migrators to arrive in early spring are the water birds! They float, seemingly content, in the icy cracks that form as the sun begins to work on the frozen lake surface. Their cold water strategies involve body fat, oiled feathers, down insulation, and a circulation system which allows cool blood coming up from their feet to pass close to warm blood traveling down, warming it as it returns to the heart. Below a group of Common Mergansers – black-headed males and brown-headed females – glided along a thin channel of water on the far side of Cranberry Lake’s iced-over surface.
Off in the distance, the Wednesday birders spotted the hunched silhouette of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) perched on the edge of the ice as a goose floated nearby. It slipped in and out of the water, hungry no doubt for food but also for a meager scrap of sunlight after living under the ice all winter!
Two sunny but cold days later, the ice had disappeared and the lake was bright blue and busy with migrating ducks and geese. Two Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)and a group of Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) – black-and-white males and brown females – dove and surfaced as they foraged near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis).
I got a bit closer to a Bufflehead by checking from the opposite side of the lake. This lone male rocked along on the surface, bobbing under to feed every few minutes. Cornell Lab of Ornithology says Bufflehead accomplish this dive by compressing their feathers to drive out the air and then pitching forward. A few seconds later, they pop to the surface like a cork and float on.
And that same cold morning, what I think was a large muskrat came steaming across the pond toward the eastern side. At the time, I thought this bustling swimmer was a Beaver (Castor canadensis), since there is a large beaver lodge on the western side of the lake. But I’m just not sure of that, so I’m sticking with it being a large muskrat. In the water, its tail looked wide enough to be a beaver, but as it approached the shore, it just didn’t seem to be big enough to be a beaver, unless it was a yearling. And beavers tend to swim with only their heads out of the water. In any case, nice to see this furry fellow plying the pond in the sunshine. What do you think? Big muskrat or young beaver?
Hearing the ancient bugle of the Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis), I quickly looked up to see two in the distance, flying into the far end of the lake. Aren’t we lucky that they breed in our wetlands?
Spring Songs Signal the Beginning of the Mating Season
As I approached the park one icy afternoon, bright spring music reached my ear – Western Chorus Frogs. These tiny frogs (Pseudacris triseriata – about 1.5 inches long!) are daytime relatives of the nocturnal Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). They spent the winter frozen solid, no heartbeat, no brain activity, but protected by an anti-freeze of sorts that keeps their tissues from breaking down. Pretty amazing! They thaw out and start singing as the days lengthen. The first afternoon I scanned a wetland trying to see these tiny creatures that seemed to be singing right at my feet, but I could not spot one! So on a second try a few days later, I found a log to sit on near the wetland in the trees just east of the parking lot. After about 20 minutes with my binoculars, I finally spotted two (of the hundreds that were probably there!), the sacks beneath their chins bulging, as they tried to impress a female with their piercing calls. Have a look and a listen!
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)sang from the tree tops in the eastern meadow, turning every few minutes to send his territory call in a new direction. He’s a bit faint on the recording below, so you might need to turn your volume up! I got a bit closer to another male in a bush near the parking lot later on. He was doing “call and response” with another cardinal hidden in the trees nearby.
A male cardinal turns periodically to send his call in all directions.
A male cardinal sang near the parking lot. Another answered from the woods nearby.
And of course, the American Robins (Turdus migratorius) that went south to Ohio and Kentucky returned as well, joining the hardy ones that spent the winter here.
His spring call is also a bit soft. And he makes a longish pause before his second “tit whoo” call.
Woodpeckers, of course, use drumming to establish territories, rather than singing. Both male and female Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens)attract mates and protect territories with drumming. You can hear their typical drum roll in this Cornell Lab recording which was put to use by the little female Downy below.
I get a huge kick out of hearing flocks of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) chirp in the shrubs and small trees. To my ear, they are the only bird that actually says “tweet, tweet, tweet!” Have a listen at this link and see if you agree! The males are currently molting into their bright yellow summer outfits.
On a bird walk one Wednesday, we heard the far distant, insistent drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Mark, one of the great spotters in the bird group, finally located it with binoculars on a very distant tree, and suddenly its mate (we assumed) dove across the trail far ahead of us before slipping up and away between the trees. No chance for a photo. But here’s an incredible closeup by talented photographer Monica Krancevic at iNaturalist.org.
The First Blooms and Some Sturdy Ferns Wait Patiently
The lovely red blossoms of the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) brighten gray days in early spring. They emerge on bare branches before the leaves and are pollinated by the wind before butterflies or other insects emerge and start to pollinate. Those big clusters of scarlet florets are a great food source for hungry squirrels in the spring, when food is scarce, since nuts and seeds are either already eaten or beginning to crack open and sprout. Last week, I found these male (staminate) clusters fallen from the treetops onto the exposed roots of a large silver maple. I love how the red at the edge of the root echoes the red of the flowers.
Take a closer look at this cluster of florets, some still closed, others waving stamens that have already shed their pollen to wind. Once pollinated, the female florets will produce winged fruits, called samaras.
Nearby on the trail to the lake, some sturdy ferns survived the winter with fertile fronds intact. The brown beads below are the sporangia on the fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)that carry the spores for this year’s crop of new plants. On the right, are the vegetative fronds that provide sugars through photosynthesis in the summer months.
The fertile frond of Sensitive Fern waits for warm weather to release its spores.
Sensitive Fern vegetative fronds in summer do the work of photosynthesis.
And the feathery ones below left are the fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)whose spores will be released and carried by the wind in the spring. Their vegetative fronds on the right stood tall and bright green, taking advantage of the moist soil and spotty sunshine in the forest.
The fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern wait for spring to release their spores.
Vegetative fronds of Ostrich Fern
Spring Just Peeks Out…Here and There
Behind a scrim of small trees on the way to the lake, I spotted these two Canada Geese floating serenely in a secluded wetland, away from the noisy flocks gathering on the lake. They reminded me that, at this time of year, spring has to be sought out. It appears and disappears. One day the lake is iced over, a few days later it’s rippling and blue and then the snow falls again. On some days, spring isn’t easily seen – just a few red blossom clusters floating in a vernal pool or scattered on the lifeless grass. Sometimes spring can only be heard and not seen. Frogs as tiny as your thumb sing unseen one day and the next, perch on a bit of floating grass, their throats bulging with amorous sound. Flocks twitter or honk high in a cold blue sky or male birds rehearse the first tentative versions of their mating songs. Woodpeckers tap out a seductive rhythm on the bark of trees.
Early spring isn’t flamboyant and colorful, like it will be in a few weeks. It’s hesitant, waiting to be found and enjoyed if we can only slow down enough. If we watch, we’ll see it peeking through the alternating rain or snowfall, cracking and opening in thawing ponds or hear it whistling, chirping, trilling from inside the brush or high in the treetops. So I hope you have time to delight in these subtle hints of early spring as they unfold. It won’t be long now…
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and others as cited in the text.
Keep an eye on your thistle feeder! Those little birds feeding greedily may not be the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) that we thought they were. Just as in 2015, the Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) rode the icy north winds down from Canada into Oakland Township. Some years they come; some years they don’t. Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to them as erratic migrators who range like nomads across the continent each winter, foraging for seeds. Your finch feeder and mine are just the ticket to attract these wandering birds.
It’s easy to confuse Pine Siskins with other finches – particularly the female House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), which is also streaked with brown. But the smaller Pine Siskins have fine, sharp bills rather than the heavier bills of other finches, and their wings flash yellow as they scrabble with other birds at your feeder. While American Goldfinches sport some yellow feathers even in winter, they have clear breasts, not striped ones. Ben reminded me that the gregarious Pine Siskins also have a distinctive wheezy, high twitter and a distinctive “Zhreee” call that accompanies their feeding and flight. Check out the differences between these bird species below. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Pine Siskins have developed some pretty powerful winter survival strategies. Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that they get through frigid nights by “ramping up their metabolic rate,” which is already 40% higher than other songbirds their size. “When temperatures plunge as low as -70°C (–94°F), they can accelerate that rate up to five times normal for several hours.” Plus they’re big eaters! They gain 50% more winter fat than other finches and can stuff their crops with “seeds totaling as much as 10% of their body mass…. The energy in that amount of food could get them through 5–6 nighttime hours of subzero temperatures.”
I try not to worry too much if the Pine Siskins monopolize our feeder for a while. So far, the American Goldfinches seem to find their moments to feed. And Pine Siskins pester their own kind as readily as they do their finch relatives, as you’ll see in the slideshow below! (Click on the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
So enjoy these feisty little travelers while you can. You never know where they’ll spend next winter!